Can an Abusive Relationship Change?

Couple at cafe table, woman kissing man's hand

Christopher Robbins/Photodisc/Getty Images

One in four women will experience domestic violence in the course of a lifetime, psychologist David Adams asserts in “Psychologist: Some Domestic Abusers Want to Change -- and Can." One in 14 men will be abused by a partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, you might sometimes wonder whether it’s possible to change it.

Can Change Happen

For an abuser to change, there must be a desire to change, writes therapist Mark Tyrrell in “In an Abusive Relationship? Help Yourself Today” on his website. If the abuser doesn't believe he or she is abusive, there is no motivation to change. The first step is to acknowledge the abusive behavior is wrong and take full responsible for the behavior without blaming anyone else for the abusive actions, psychologist Jill Murray explains in “Can You Help Change an Abuser?” on her website. Most abusers will need help to change.

The Right Therapy for Change

The National Domestic Violence Hotline advises the abusive partner to shoulder responsibility for finding a solution. "One part of changing may involve an abusive partner willingly attending a certified batterer intervention program that focuses on behavior, reflection and accountability," the hotline's website notes. "At the Hotline we don’t recommend couples counseling, anger management, substance abuse programs or mental health treatments for abusers to learn about and deal with their abusive patterns (although oftentimes these can helpfully supplement a batterer intervention program)."

While the abusive partner is going through a process of change, it’s best for the other partner to leave the home and watch from a distance, according to psychologist Kellie Holly. In “Proof of Change in Abuser’s Behavior,” a blog post on the website HealthyPlace, Holly says that allowing the abusive partner to pursue change alone encourages new coping habits.

Changing on the Other Side

If you are a victim of abuse, you can change things by leaving, but your partner might become even more abusive. Enlist help to get out of the relationship, such as having a way to signal you are in trouble, suggests psychologist Phil McGraw in “An Exit Action Plan: Guidelines for Leaving an Abusive Relationship” on his website. Shelters offer more than just a safe place to be. The shelter staff can provide information for counseling for you and any children you have, as well as referrals for employment, housing and medical care. Some shelters can also help with essentials such as food and clothing.

The Bottom Line

For the relationship to change one or both partners must change. Individual counseling can help both of you to recover. You might find counseling especially helpful to avoid returning to the abuser or entering another abusive relationship. No one deserves to be abused, so if the abuser won’t change, the only way to permanently alter the relationship is for the abused partner to leave.